New Jersey Scuba Diving
Buoyancy Compensator & Weight System
Styles and fads come and go, but the advice below remains the same for Buoyancy Compensators. Unless someone figures out how to turn them into gold, there is nothing new to say about lead weights.
These items, along with tanks, are generally considered separately, something that I think is a mistake that often leads to buying equipment that quickly becomes inadequate, especially in the rigorous environment of the North Atlantic. However, it is not difficult to select items that both perform well and allow for future expansion, once you consider the requirements and interactions. To that end, I suggest that you read both the sections on BC & weight systems, and the section on tanks.
The Buoyancy Compensator or BC is thought-of primarily as a flotation device, and for warm-water divers with not much more than a single tank and reg, this is pretty much all it needs to be. However, for cold-water divers, the BC serves another and equally if not more important function: it is the base around which all the rest of your gear is assembled. For cold-water diving, a BC may be called upon to support multiple tanks, weights, gauges, bags, and myriad accessories - much more equipment than a tropical diver would ever carry. And not all BC designs are equally good at this.
BCs come in essentially two styles: the jacket style, where the entire BC is sewn into something like an inflatable vest, and the "tech" style, which consists of a web harness to which a back-mounted air bladder is attached for floatation. One thing that most beginners do not realize is that if you planned your dive and weighting correctly, you should be carrying very little air in your BC during your dive; especially true if you use a drysuit. Therefore, many of the manufacturer's big selling points of "interconnected three-dimensional air cells" and the like are more specious marketing hype than useful features, and the old inverted-U back bladder ( clearly descended from an automobile inner tube ) will work just as well as the much more complex and expensive designs, and sometimes better.
The popular jacket-style BC still dominates the market - you probably got certified in one. This design is supposed to have the advantage of floating an incapacitated diver ( or a panicked student ) face-up at the surface. This is simply not so - every jacket-style BC that I have ever used floats you face down in the water, especially if used with a buoyant aluminum tank. If you were unconscious, you would drown in one of these as surely as you would drown in any other type of BC, especially in rough seas. In fact, the inadequate lift that most jacket-style BCs provide makes them even worse than other designs in this regard. A BC is simply not a life preserver.
Looks familiar ? This is what you don't want. ( I don't mean to pick on any particular manufacturer or model; this is just an example. )
Another fallacy about jacket-style BCs is that they are more comfortable than harnesses. Because they are designed for fashion rather than function, their load-carrying characteristics are very poor: the weight of the tank is transmitted as tension over the shoulders and straight down the front of the BC, where there is nothing to resist it. Therefore, the tank sags when out of the water, pulling the whole thing out of shape and probably cutting into you uncomfortably under the arms. A stretchy Velcro cummerbund that does little to secure anything at the waist rounds out the list of structural deficiencies. With a Jersey-sized load of double tanks and other gear, the basically poor fit and design of one of these BCs is really evident. Both on land and in the water the whole arrangement is just loose and sloppy, sliding around with every motion. Also, these BCs generally lack a useful number of D-rings and other attachment points to hang accessories from, and leave little room for customization.
Yet another flaw in almost all jacket style BCs is that they have just a single cam band to secure the tank. This is inadequate; dual tank bands provide a much more secure mounting for the heaviest item you are likely to be carrying. No tank will ever slip from a two-banded BC, whereas it will readily fall out of a single-banded BC if the strap is not tight enough, or the buckle pops off. Given that the tank cam band is a standard and quite inexpensive part, manufacturers really have no excuse for not providing all of their products with two instead of one. Maybe it's not fashionable.
Jacket-style BCs are junk. If you already own one and like it, good for you. But if you are in the market for a new BC, don't waste your money. And ladies - beware of so-called Women's BC's. I've never spoken to anyone who used one that thought highly of it.
Fortunately, the simple old harness-style designs of the past are making a resurgence as the much-improved modern "Tech" BC. To get an idea of what these are like, just look at a good camping backpack. The shoulder straps originate close behind the neck, run down the chest with a cross-strap between, then around the sides to reattach to the pack at the rear. With a solid belt around the waist, this structure is capable of supporting enormous weight securely and comfortably. Add plenty of D-rings in strategic locations, and optionally a crotch strap ( you never know when you might get upside-down ) and you have an excellent base upon which to build the rest of your equipment. The uncluttered chest area gives the user a feeling of freedom, and also allows for a drysuit inflator, while a generous air cell at the back provides ample lift at the surface. And ladies - the relatively narrow shoulder straps may be easily routed around sensitive areas.
Here is an illustration of one such system from DiveRite. At the top is a selection of interchangeable back-mounted air bladders, ranging from a small travel-size to a huge cave diving size. Below that is a selection of harnesses, including a soft-pack and a hard metal backplate that mates with a choice of two strap designs. The small item at the lower left is an optional weight pouch. Even in this illustration, the enormous number of adjustments and attachment points is obvious. Not shown are a wide range of small accessory pockets and other add-ons that are available. Almost anything that is made to fit on a 2" nylon web weight belt can be adapted to one of these harnesses.
Harness-style soft-pack BC ( left ) and stainless steel backplate with web harness ( right. ) Note that in both cases the air bladder for buoyancy ( or "wing" as it is commonly called, below ) is a separate item, which allows you to choose the size and style you need. The wings are held in place by the tank or tanks.
With a completely modular system like this you can select those components that suit you, and build a custom BC system that will fit you and serve you far better than any fixed jacket-style BC. Even with well over 100 pounds attached, a harness like this is rock solid, with all the weight hanging comfortably from the shoulders. In the water, it is likewise very snug and secure, and the many D-rings mean you will never run out of places to hang things.
The soft-pack shown works quite well with single tanks, and is easily adapted to double tanks, with either permanent or temporary bands. It is extremely comfortable and versatile, and packs up small and light for traveling. The steel backplate and harness shown above are really only suited for double tanks with permanent bands. Adapters exist for single tanks, but these are clumsy at best, and expensive. One advantage of the steel backplate is that it can reduce your weighting requirements, by virtue of its own weight. However, for all these reasons, a steel backplate is not too good for traveling. Backplates are also available in plastic and aluminum.
A wide selection of accessory pockets is available.
Many BC manuals and dive shops will tell you that your BC should be brought in for "maintenance" once a year just like your regulator. Whether you choose to pay for this or just check it over yourself at the beginning of the season is up to you.
The only allowable BC in the DIR system is a hard backplate woven-through with a single long piece of nylon webbing in a manner known as "Hogarthian." You can look that up in Google for more details. The design is driven mainly by fear of entanglement hazards and failure points, although in truth these fears are mostly imaginary in open water.
DIR divers will harp on all the stitching in a soft pack harness, claiming that this adds weakness and failure points. In fact, nylon stitching is very strong - more than enough for its purpose. Likewise, the shoulder buckles which make the rig much easier to get on and off and adjust are quite solid. My TransPac has hundreds of dives on it and shows no signs of failure.
DIR adherents claim that every D-ring represents an entanglement hazard, as do compression straps on buoyancy wings, weight and storage pockets, and other accessories. This is simply unrealistic - these items seldom snag on anything, although an unrestrained buoyancy wing fluttering in the current is more likely to get sliced open on a sharp piece of wreck than a neatly bungied one. My TransPac has hundreds of dives on it and has never snagged a D-ring on anything.
By itself, a pure Hogarthian rig is inadequate for Northeast diving, but it can easily be built-upon with additional D-rings, buckles, some padding, bungies, etc, to become serviceable. Note that the Hogarthian rig still retains all of the drawbacks of a hard plate system, as described above.
On Multiple D-Rings
While leafing through the then brand-new PADI/DSAT technical diving materials, I was amazed at some of their conclusions. In particular, they state that selecting among multiple BC D-rings is task loading, therefore bad. While this is exactly in line with cave diving theory, it is not fit well into the real world of cold-water diving. From experience I will tell you that working entirely by touch, with cold-numbed hands inside 6mm mitts, whichever D-ring you find first is exactly the one you wanted. The more D-rings you have, the sooner you'll find one when you need it. This is not some theory, this is experience.
Without a doubt, the one item of dive gear that more people complain about is their weight belt. These things are just plain uncomfortable, and more so for northern divers, who usually need extra weight to compensate for a thick wetsuit or drysuit. Weight belts are also tricky for beginners to set up, put on, and adjust properly, and are one of the greatest sources of difficulty that I have observed with students.
But there's a simple solution: get rid of it. With the plethora of weight-integrated BCs on the market today, there is simply no reason not to get a weight-integrated BC. Some of the excellent reasons to do this include:
- Comfort - the weight of the lead no longer rests on your hips, but hangs from your shoulders, or is supported by the harness in the water. Most integrated weight systems also include padding between you and the weights, the end result being that your weights will never bother you again.
- Convenience - most integrated weight systems are easily adjusted, so that even in the water it is a simple matter to add or remove weight. Many can also be repositioned for perfect balance and trim in the water.
- Safety - with your weight split between two or more carriers, it is possible to selectively ditch part or all of it in an emergency situation, allowing for a much safer and more controlled ascent than a dangerous all-or nothing weight belt ditch.
When selecting an integrated weight system, some particulars to look for are:
- What type of weight does it use? A weight system that can only use expensive shot-type soft weights is going to leave you wearing a weight belt when you travel.
- How much weight will it hold? Will this be enough for you, now and in the future? Don't forget to read the sections on tanks and exposure suits.
- How easily is the weight ditched? Is it too easy to ditch the weight; could it happen by accident?
- How easily does it load and unload? Can weight be added and removed without disassembling the whole thing? Can weight be added/removed in the water?
- If you ever do have to ditch weights, is the lost weight carrier quickly and inexpensively replaced? Ideally, you should dump only the lead itself, without loosing a part of your BC that you may not be able to replace a few years down the road !
I personally would avoid any system that requires the use of soft weights or a weight carrier that ditches with the weights themselves.
The only major drawback I can think of for a weight-integrated BC is the rare case in which you must take it off underwater. In this case, you better not let go of it, or you will float away completely unweighted. For deep wreck penetrations where this is likely, a weight belt might still be a better choice, but you can always wear a weight belt under your empty weight-integrated BC for these occasions.
Lead weights in a variety of sizes, on a bed of lead shot.
Coated or uncoated weights ( or soft ) ?
Coated weights are good for training situations, where students can drop them in and around the pool and not make marks or break tiles. But although the plastic coating is fairly thick, it is not very soft, and it feels no different through a wetsuit than bare lead. So there really is no difference in comfort between the two when you wear them.
Because they are big and bulky, I recommend against coated weights for personal use, especially with integrated weight systems or pouch-type weight belts - uncoated weights are much slimmer, and cheaper too. Solid lead weights can be expected to last forever ( or until you lose them ! ) but soft shot-type weights do wear out, and eventually will leak a steady stream of BBs until they are empty. Given their high price and limited life, I would not get shot weights, except as anklets.
Here's a neat idea: attach a brass snap to an extra weight ( 2-4 lbs. is good ) with wire ties. Now you can snap it on and off you, to adjust your buoyancy. This is better than just sticking an extra weight in your pocket, as those tend to get lost, or damage your BC.
One possible use for this is descending the anchor line, when a little extra weight might help. When you reach the bottom, take the weight off and attach it to the anchor, so it can't be forgotten. At the end of your dive, pick it up again for your ascent and safety stop. This would also be useful in an inlet dive, if you are not sure what weight you will need. If you are using a fixed flag, that would be a good place to leave the drop-weight.
Here I had to guess my weighting in fresh water with only shorts and a T-shirt under the suit. As you can see, my initial guess was wrong. ( Yes, that is a coated weight - sometimes the bright color is handy. )
If you want to be a DIR diver, then you better get used to that uncomfortable old nylon weight belt. Anything else is frowned upon, as are ankle weights. Again, for open-water diving, this is an artificial requirement that makes little sense. I'm not sure I can see how it makes sense in a cave either, but then I'm not a cave diver.
While I highly recommend the DiveRite TransPac with Rec Wings and weight pockets, many other manufacturers make equally good "Tech" BCs and components, including Zeagle, OMS, DUI, and many of the other major brands. For those in the market for a new BC, perhaps some of this will help. I know I didn't consider these things when I bought my first BC, and I ended up replacing it. As I said above, I really feel BC, weights, and tanks should be thought of as parts of a system, so please read those sections as well.
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.
Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted